We know St Luke first of all as an evangelist - the author of the third gospel - and also as the author of the Acts of the Apostles, the work which records for us the earliest history of the Christian Church. His Gospel contains precious material which we know only from St Luke: for instance, the story of the birth of John the Baptist, the story of the Annunciation, the story of the Presentation, the only story we have of the childhood of Jesus - his visit to Jerusalem at the age of twelve years, and so on. Three of our familiar canticles, the ‘Benedictus’ (BCP, p. 9), the ‘Magnificat’ (p. 21), and the ‘Nunc Dimittis’, (p. 22) are found only in St Luke’s Gospel.
We know very little, however, about St. Luke’s own personal history. There is an ancient and widespread tradition that he was an artist, a painter of pictures, but the evidence is quite uncertain. But we do know, both from the Acts of the Apostles and from St Paul’s Epistles, that he was a companion of St Paul on missionary journeys. St Paul speaks of him with affection as his ‘fellow-labourer’, and ‘the brother whose praise is in the Gospel throughout all the churches.’
In the Epistle to the Colossians, St Paul speaks of him as the ‘beloved physician,’ and for that reason, St Luke has been traditionally regarded as the patron of doctors and nurses, and of the medical profession and the healing ministry generally. In recent years, the healing ministry has been receiving renewed emphasis in the Christian Church, and today, as we honour St Luke, it seems to me that we might usefully consider that subject.
In Christian history, the healing ministry has a long and distinguished record. Although medical science is in fact older than the Christian Church, and was cultivated, for instance, in ancient Greece, still, in late antiquity, and in the European Middle Ages, it became largely the province of Christian religious orders, whose members founded hospitals, and devoted their lives to the care of the sick. In modern times, and especially during the past century, our medical institutions have become gradually secularized: but still most of them can trace their history back to ecclesiastical foundations.
Nowadays, if one speaks of the healing ministry, I suppose many people are inclined to think particularly of the phenomena of ‘faith healing’, and the ‘healing services’ which now go on in many of our churches; but the healing ministry, properly speaking, must include, and our Christian concern must include, the whole vast range of healing work, whether it is directly under the auspices of the Churches, or not. And we should try to understand just what is the nature of our Christian commitment to that whole work of health and healing.
For Christians, the fundamental motive in all this is charity. We love one another, and we seek to bear one another’s burdens, and to relieve one another’s suffering. In charity, we will the eternal good of one another, and seek to free one another from any ill which may inhibit the pursuit of that eternal good. It is that care for one another that underlies the Christian’s work of healing, not the assumption that sickness and death are absolute evils and worldly comfort an absolute good. Sickness, if we can bear it with faith and fortitude may be the occasion of great spiritual good, and death may be the gate of everlasting life. ‘Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul’, says Jesus: ‘but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.’
A world which has lost its sense of the soul’s eternal destiny, a world which has lost its hope of heaven, readily fixes upon earthly health and longevity as though they were absolute goods, as though they were ends in themselves, as though an everlasting life of earthly health and comfort were our destiny. And what utter folly that is! As St Paul says, ‘If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men the most miserable.’ Preoccupied with health and worldly comfort, we engage in a soul-destroying pretense, and, in the end, we lose both earth and heaven. Medical science makes splendid progress. We win a few more battles, and we live a few years longer, and in greater comfort than our forefathers did. That can be exceedingly worthwhile, if it means more opportunity to serve God in our neighbour, and train our souls for heaven. But we do not live forever, and we do not build an earthly paradise.
We seek to relieve the sufferings of others, and we face with trepidation our own sickness and death, and we thank God for every possible relief: not that these are absolute evils, but because they are tests of our faith, and who knows with what spirit he can bear them? Can we, like Job, praise God from the bottom of the pit? ‘Though he slay me, yet will I praise him.’ And so we pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation’, which means, ‘Put us not to the test’. And yet the tests must come, and we pray that our faith fail not: we pray that God will ‘deliver us from the evil one’.
‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him’. So said Job in his affliction. I know that someday, I will be sick, and that someday I will not get well again. I do not know, but I hope, that I will have the spiritual maturity to accept that with faith and hope. One of the finest statements I know of that spiritual maturity is in the beautiful lines of a great seventeenth-century Puritan divine, Richard Baxter. Here it is:
Lord, it belongs not to my care / whether I die or live;
to love and serve thee is my share, / and this thy grace must give.
If life be long, O make me glad / the longer to obey;
if short, no laborer is sad / to end his toilsome day.
Christ leads me through no darker rooms / than he went through before;
he that unto God's kingdom comes / must enter by this door.
Come, Lord, when grace hath made me meet / thy blessèd face to see:
for if thy work on earth be sweet, / what will thy glory be!
Then I shall end my sad complaints / and weary sinful days,
and join with the triumphant saints / that sing my Savior's praise.
My knowledge of that life is small, / the eye of faith is dim;
but 'tis enough that Christ knows all, / and I shall be with him.